April 6, 2024

The bilingual brain: Arturo Hernandez and why native language is different from foreign language (2013)

by Mateusz Wiącek

Arturo Hernandez is a neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist known for his research on the neural basis of language and cognition, particularly in the context of bilingualism.

In 2013 Hernandez published the book The Bilingual Brain, where he explores how bilingualism influences brain structure and function.

His main theories include:

  • Cognitive advantages: there are advantages associated with early bilingualism (i.e. learning a language before the critical period), such as enhanced executive functions like cognitive control, attention, and problem-solving. Bilingual individuals may exhibit differences in how they process and manage cognitive tasks compared to monolinguals. There seem to be cognitive advantages to learning a foreign language as a second language.
  • Language control: In bilinguals, two languages live inside a brain almost like two species live in an ecosystem. They are active at the same time, and they peacefully coexist and share resources. But they also compete for resources, particularly when under stress. Bilingual individuals need to manage and control their languages to avoid interference.
  • Age of acquisition: The age at which individuals acquire a second language can impact the neural organization of language systems. Early bilinguals, who acquire both languages during childhood, may show differences in brain structure compared to late bilinguals who acquire a second language later in life.

While students may become proficient in additional languages later in life, the naturalness of using the native language is rooted in early developmental and experiential factors. 

The brain undergoes neural specialization for the native language(s) during early development. Specific regions of the brain become dedicated to processing the sounds, syntax, and semantics of the native language, making native language use automatic and effortless.

For the brain, the native language is very different from the second language.

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